Drive out through Yangon’s bumpy streets — past the pagodas and the gently decaying colonial architecture, past the new shopping malls and the bustling alleys of Chinatown, past the tenements where families live nine to a tiny apartment — and cross the old bridge over the Bago river. Beyond the margins of the city, in a country beyond the margins of the international community, is the village of Zigon.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about Zigon. It is better off than many villages in a country where the average annual income is US$1,000. However, when William Hague visited last week — the first by a British foreign secretary in 56 years — he would have passed over thousands of settlements like this when he flew from the capital, Naypyidaw, down to Yangon.
Naypyidaw, with its 12-lane highways and monumental architecture, has been carved out of scrub and farmland as a monument to the power of the autocratic and secretive military clique that has ruled Burma for decades — a power that now appears to be waning, or at least evolving.
Hague’s visit, coming after that of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month, would have been unthinkable even 18 months ago.
“The aim of my visit is to reinforce change in this country,” he said last week as he sat on the terrace of the British ambassador’s vast residence in Yangon, itself a monument to former rulers whose power finally faded.
However, if there has been talk this week of democracy in Myanmar and the tentative reforms being implemented by the government since an election in November 2010, there has been less interest in the rural areas, where 70 percent of the population live.
The focus, inevitably, has been on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning campaigner who was released from decades of house arrest only 14 months ago, and her largely urban-based National League for Democracy (NLD). If few are interested in places like Zigon at the best of times, last week such communities seemed almost non-existent.
Burmese presidential adviser Nay Zinn Latt described a bright new democratic and capitalist future for the nation.
“Unless we grow economically there will be unrest in our cities and no one will be able to drive a Mercedes down a street without fear,” he said in an interview at a hotel he owns in Yangon.
“If we want capitalism, we need a free market — and that means we need some freedoms that we didn’t have before. So now is the time for change,” he said.
He did not mention the villages. And though British officials spoke of economic issues in Myanmar in background briefings, Hague’s announcement that ￡10 million (US$15.5 million) of existing British aid would go to provide small, cheap loans to the “poorest of the poor” seemed almost an afterthought.
It is true, of course, that the 1,000 or so inhabitants of Zigon — a strip of largely wooden homes built on a narrow spit of land at the confluence of two rivers — have much to worry about apart from politics. Local council head O Win Thei lists the problems faced by his fellow villagers: Their wooden homes barely keep out monsoon rains; no proper sewers mean effluent floats around the village during frequent floods, bringing gastroenteritis and worse; clouds of mosquitoes bring deaths from dengue fever every year; the public school is overcrowded and the monastery school has no places; and it is only due to a donation from the Singaporean government that the village has a clean water supply.